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Multiple-choice answer;Mathematics

Post-16 students wanting to continue maths as a minor subject are offered few options. But a new qualification being piloted at the moment will widen their choice, says Jack Abramsky.

Alevel maths equals money" was The TES headline of February 19. The story quoted a report from the London School of Economics as demonstrating that those who lack mathematical knowledge are disadvantaged in today's job market.

Mathematical skills provide the analytical and problem-solving tools required for decision making in industry and commerce. Developing these skills is an economic necessity if we are to compete in a global marketplace. And yet England differs markedly from most of its industrial competitors in not making some post-16 study of mathematics compulsory.

Currently, nearly three-quarters of 16 to 19-year-olds are participating in some form of education and training. Fifty-seven per cent of 17-year-olds are in full-time education, but only 10 per cent of all 17-year-olds are studying A or AS-level mathematics. Others are taking or re-taking GCSE mathematics or a certificate of achievement in numeracy, and a few Advanced GNVQ students may study some mathematics. But the vast majority study no mathematics at all.

The introduction of application of number as a key skill component to GNVQs was intended to help address the lack of mathematical competency of young adults. In the long term, it should help improve their numerical skills. But it is not the best means of developing genuine mathematical, problem-solving skills which enable students to conceptualise, to symbolise and to solve new and unfamiliar problems using a mathematical tool-kit of know-ledge, nor was it intended to be.

So if an A or AS-level in mathematics or in statistics is not appropriate, what choice is there at 16 for students looking to continue with mathematics, either to better their job pros-pects or to meet the entry requirements of higher education? Effectively none.

What is being done about this? The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has pioneered the introduction of new stand-alone mathematics qualifications for post-16 year olds, called Free-Standing Mathematics Units (FSMUs). They are available to students on different educational pathways, providing small, in-depth chunks of relevant mathematics to students of different abilities and with different mathematical needs. Not only will students be taught mathematical principles, they will be encouraged to apply these principles to other areas of their study.

Since September last year, 12 free-standing mathematics units have been piloted with the English unitary awarding bodies. This will continue until August next year. The intention is that these new qualifications become nationally recognised from September 2000 - the date for the introduction of the new six-module A-levels and new GNVQ units. There will be notional equivalence between an A-level module, an advanced GNVQ unit, and an advanced FSMU. Intermediate FSMUs will offer mathematics at a depth corresponding to the broader mathematical knowledge required to obtain GCSE mathematics with a grade C or above, and the Foundation units will correspond to the broader mathematical knowledge required to obtain GCSE mathematics grades G-D.

The units should appeal to students with different career aspirations and goals. They can be used to enhance study of science or social science A-levels; to enable some continuation of mathematics for those who have achieved high grades in GCSE mathematics but have chosen entirely non-mathematical subjects beyond GCSE; to enhance any GNVQ course from science or engineering to leisure and tourism. They should replace the serial retaking of GCSE mathematics.

The units could be used by adults returning to education on ACCESS or Foundation courses, or wishing to go into teacher training. They could also be used for enhancing the work-place skills of trainees and modern apprenticeships. Their breadth of application will help fill a considerable gap.

Those involved in piloting the units believe they will help increase participation in mathematics and thereby improve the mathematical competency of young adults. This in turn will be of benefit to employers and the economy. Employers and universities should take note of their existence and consider the implications for recruitment.

All secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges should recently have received information about these units. QCA hopes they will promote these qualifications to students. The signs are already positive.

The units can be found on the Internet at Jack Abramsky is principal subject officer for mathematics at the QCA


Post-16 qualifications available from September 2000:

* AS-level mathematics; further mathematics; statistics (3 modules each)

* A-level mathematics; further mathematics; statistics (6 modules each)

* optional mathematics units for advanced GNVQ

* Free-standing mathematics units:

- foundation level: managing money; working in two- and three-dimensions; making sense of data

- intermediate level: calculating finances; solving problems in shape and space; handling and interpreting data; using algebra, functions and graphs; making connections in mathematics

- higher level: using and applying statistics; working with algebraic and graphical techniques; modelling with calculus; understanding mathematical thinking

* GCSE mathematics

* Application of number as part of key skills qualification

* Entry level qualifications (up to national curriculum level 3)

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